The idea behind Volkswagen’s The Fun Theory program is simple: reward socially useful behaviors by making them into opportunities for play. Or, to quote a great sage, “You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”

The Fun Theory first appeared on our radar back in October of 2009, when it funded the conversion of a public stairway in a busy subway station into a giant piano keyboard to encourage people to take the stairs instead of an adjacent escalator.

Shortly thereafter, the program produced The World’s Deepest Trashcan— a public rubbish bin that senses when an object is discarded and plays a delightful sound effect suggesting an impossibly long Wile E. Coyote-style fall, followed by a distant crash. The idea here is to encourage people to put their litter in the can by making the act of throwing something away rewarding in a visceral way.

Next came a glass bottle recycling bin that doubles as a whack-a-mole-style video game, with six different bottle openings, flashing lights, sound effects and a scoreboard.

Recently, their open contest was won by US citizen Kevin Richardson. His idea? Use a robot speed patrol camera in reverse-reinforcement mode: Record the license plates of those driving within the posted speed limit and automatically enter them in a lottery, with cash rewards funded by speeding tickets.

We’re unsure, as of this writing, if Volkswagen intends to continue The Fun Theory awards program, or not. We certainly hope so. It’s been a great source of inspiration to many makers, and a great source of funding for some clever projects that otherwise might never have been realized. And—just incidentally, of course—we think it’s done great things for VW’s PR, too. Congrats, Meine Damen und Herren.


If you have a suggestion for a company to be nominated for “Best Education / Outreach Program,” or one of the other three 2011 Makey awards, please send us an e-mail or leave a comment, below.